KTSC Needs Revamping, Not Replacing

The Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corp has an awkward name and has been in a very awkward position for the past several months.

The name itself grew out of a 2002 merger between the Knoxville Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Greater Knoxville Sports Corp. The latter's dynamo of a sports event recruiter, Gloria Ray, took charge of all of the former CVB's endeavors with a special emphasis on booking events into the city's then foundering new convention center.

The revelation in January that, unbeknownst to her full board of directors, Ray's compensation exceeded $400,000 hit like a bombshell and led to her forced retirement. It also raised doubts whether KTSC, whose $3.5 million budget is funded by hotel-motel tax proceeds, was out of control in other ways as well.

An outraged County Mayor Tim Burchett promptly ordered a special audit of KTSC's books and management procedures. Going further, he set in motion a competitive process for "the selection of a qualified firm to provide Destination Marketing and Event Management Services." And city officials are participating in the evaluation of responses.

In an audit report released last month, Pugh & Co. found that KTSC's 23-member board was too large to function well and had been ill-advised to delegate employment contract and compensation decisions to a committee or its chairman. But Pugh's president, Larry Elmore, advised the Knox County Audit Committee that, "98 percent of expenses were documented and approved as they should have been." While "in a few instances expenses of the president weren't, she reimbursed five Purchase Card charges of $2,300." Importantly, the audit also concluded that the compensation of KTSC's other senior officers was in line with that of counterparts in comparable cities. For example, the $140,000 paid to KTSC's then second in command and now interim president, Kim Bumpas, was less than the number-two person got at CVBs in Nashville, Memphis, and Austin.

Last week's deadline for submission of competitive proposals elicited three responses in addition to KTSC's. But it's hard to imagine that any of the others could begin to replicate the full range of roles that KTSC's 20-person staff performs.

Bumpas gets high marks for her performance both before and after Ray's departure and both in relation to convention center bookings and in her approach to KTSC's much broader mission to promote Knoxville as a visitor destination.

While Knoxville Convention Center revenues dipped during the Great Recession, they've begun to grow again from slightly under $4.6 million in fiscal year 2011 to more than $4.7 million in the current fiscal year. And KCC's general manager, Mary Bogart, expects a further increase of close to 10 percent in events and attendance in the fiscal year ahead. Where KCC's management and KTSC's sales staff had clashed in the past, by all reports they now work hand in glove. "Kim Bumpas has done a very good job and very importantly worked well together with the convention center staff, and I'm afraid that may get lost," says Larry Martin, who oversaw this sphere during his five years as chief deputy to former Mayor Bill Haslam.

KTSC has come under criticism in some quarters for lacking a holistic approach to attracting visitors to Knoxville. As the city's destination marketing organization, or DMO, it's supposed to make the most of everything from arts and cultural offerings, historic sites, and entertainment scenes, to our Urban Wilderness, as the bluffs and trails adjoining the South Waterfront have come to be known. As diverse as all of the above—and then some—may be, they're somehow supposed to be pulled together in a distinctive Knoxville brand.

In the view of Martin's successor as the city's chief operating officer, Eddie Mannis, the branding process needs to start with a strategic plan. "I think Knoxville has a lot to offer, but somehow we need to be able to communicate what it is, and I sometimes think our branding message is confused," he says.

Ray was viewed by some as part of the problem with a "my way or the highway" style. But after just a few months at the helm, Bumpas is viewed quite differently. "All you have to do is talk to Kim for three minutes to see the change," says the executive director of the Arts & Culture Alliance, Liza Zenni. "She's much more inclusive, and my sense is that KTSC now understands that we're an important part of the mosaic."

Bumpas, for her part, believes that the DMO should serve as the brand manager. But she cautions that, "Getting to a brand is a process. You can't just push your fingers and have one overnight. You have to have a lot of community dialog with the city and county both involved. And because of everything else that's been going on [i.e. the competitive selection process] it hasn't lent a hand to our getting there."

One thing Bumpas is clear on, though, is that the organization needs a name change. "The name KTSC has been an identity crisis from day one," she asserts. Whether it's a reversion to "Convention and Visitors Bureau," as most counterparts in other cities are known, or an attempt at something catchy like "Destination Knoxville" also needs to be a matter for community discussion. "But it won't have the word sports in it," in her view.

While two of the other respondents to the county's request for proposals have strengths in producing media materials and might have a supporting role to play, it's clear to me that a rebranded KTSC should remain in charge of the overall effort.